A Hardy Welcome to 2023! Goals for the New Year…

I have always been a “goals guy”.  You know the one guy in class or in the office who plans everything, seems to be ahead of schedule, or makes numerous lists?  Yeah, that’s me.

This past week, I set out to make goals that will make 2023 nothing like 2022.  I’m ready to put 2022 behind me, as far as possible in fact!

So, this year, I have set out with new personal, professional, and spiritual goals.

My personal goals include a more concerted effort to exercise and diet.  Now, I’ve been working on this a long time, but I must admit that this past year, I have let my ministry consume my time more than I should have.  I have left little to growing my ministry of health and exercise.  With this goal already in place in the last week, I have already lost two pounds!  That’s a win!

My spiritual goals are a little different too.  Last year, I organized my daily Scripture readings and prayer around a prayer book that I tried on for size.  It was rich in worship and connection, but I wanted to try something different.  This year I am reading through the New Testament in the newly released Experiencing God Bible.  It is in the CSB (Christian Standard Bible) version, which is new to me. 

I continue to read through the Old Testament (since starting again in 2020) translation by Robert Alter, which has provided rich commentary and insights along the way.  I’m in 2 Kings right now. 

And I also read a chapter of Thomas A’Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. In the version I have, each chapter includes a reflection and a prayer to go along with the text, and those prayers lead me into my quiet time with Jesus.

Professionally, I am trying to ask questions (or discovering the right questions to ask) about each ministry in our church.  With one less ministerial staff member for the time being, we have to insure that we are doing the best we can with what we do well rather than trying to “be all things for all people”.  The two questions I am asking about each ministry is this:

  • How do we articulate the “…so that…” statement?  I’d like to know how each ministry connects with our mission, values, and the people we are trying to reach.  So, for instance, we can say, “We do the GROW ministry so that we can communicate and pray for people who are unable to be on campus on a regular basis.” That is great, but can there be more to it, like: “We also do GROW so that we can build connections with new guests and our local community“.  Well, if that is the case, what do we need to add to our GROW ministry to reach new people both within and beyond the church? 
  • Does it bear fruit?  Another question to ask is whether a ministry is bearing fruit.  Too often, we look at numbers and “returns on investment” when we assess the efficacy of ministries.  But those are questions appropriate for the marketplace, not necessarily for God’s mission in the life of our church. What if we asked, “Is this ministry bearing fruit?”  What kind of “measures of success” might we look at?  Instead of numbers, we would look at spiritual growth, connections and sharing the Gospel, and engaging our community on mission for God.  These are very different ways of looking at success of our ministry. 

These are just a handful of goals I have for 2023, and I hope that you are as excited about this New Year as I am.  I’m ready to go, and to go where Jesus leads!  What about you?

The Importance of Interfaith Engagement

In an age of globalization and massive migration, religious radicalism across the world has been increasing over the last half-century.   Religious persecution is a world-wide human rights crisis, and even religions once claimed as most peaceful have resorted to authoritarianism and violence to commit violence against others.  In our own nation, for instance, so-called “Christian nationalism” is a radicalizing factor that has perpetuated centuries of western, religious-motivated violence in recent years. 

The need for building interfaith bridges–intentionally and thoughtfully–is needed now more than ever. Peacemaking can no longer happen on the sidelines.

My own interfaith work, spanning over a decade, is bound up with my religious upbringing and experience.  My parents moved from the Catholic Church to a Protestant one when I was born in New York. Later, upon moving to Florida, we attended a Southern Baptist church and then made our way to a Calvary Chapel led by a Cuban pastor.  From there, in high school and the wake of Hurricane Andrew, we moved to Coral Springs, where I attended a multicultural, charismatic Presbyterian church in Pompano Beach.  It was there that I was baptized, got married, and responded to a call in full-time ministry.

My multicultural, multiethnic, multi-Christian upbringing gave me a hunger to learn about the faiths of others.  In college at Palm Beach Atlantic University, the college hosted Jewish-Christian dialogues with synagogues in Palm Beach.  This exposure showed me the importance of interfaith immersion as a way to learn about one’s own faith and to understand the faith of others.  I learned the importance of “faith seeking understanding” by befriending people of other faiths and listening to their faith stories just as much as I wanted to share my own faith story. I took a class by one of the rabbis on the land and history of Israel, a truly eye-opening experience.

In my first year of seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, terrorists crashed planes in the Twin Towers, Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.  The religious landscape in America changed abruptly, and we saw an escalation of violence primarily focused on Muslim populations in the nation, especially in the South.  Antisemitism also increased in the wake of this event.

As a result, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, to which I subscribed, formed an Interfaith Task Force with leaders from the Smoke Rise Baptist Church (Stone Mountain, GA), several downtown synagogues, and the Islamic Speakers’ Bureau.  I joined the committee around 2011, and volunteered to be the “congregational liaison” for the committee, traveling across the state to meet with pastors and supporting (or encouraging) interfaith work in their local communities. One of our initiatives of the committee was to form and dedicate an interfaith garden at Mercer University.

When I moved to Vero Beach in 2016, I sought out the local Rabbi, Michael Birnholz, at Temple Beth Shalom, only two blocks from my house.  He invited me to become active in the Indian River Interfaith Community, which meets monthly at Cleveland Clinic through the generous support of the Chaplaincy’s office.

The Indian River Interfaith Community is a group of local faith leaders and friends who communicate our unity in the midst of diversity.  It is a group that, in good faith, shares what we have in common but also does not shy away from our distinctives and differences.

Aside from meeting monthly, we host several programs for the public, including online interfaith dialogues, an annual Thanksgiving service hosted by the Community Church, prayer vigils in times of crisis and tragedy, the Four Chaplains service in Sebastian, and service projects, among many other events.

As a way to encourage interfaith understanding, I encourage four keys to interfaith work.  First, learn! Read books and search out healthy avenues of learning about people of other cultures, histories, and religions.   

Second, befriend.  Relationships are the key to “faith seeking understanding,” and I encourage you to get out of your comfort zone and be intentional about befriending people who are different from you. 

Third, listen!  Listen to the stories of others and understand.  Listen to the emotions behind the words, and put yourselves in the shoes of another.  

Last, engage! Participate in community. Participate in the community of your own faith, then go out and participate in the community of others. Just last month, for instance, I had the privilege of preaching at Temple Beth Shalom. Later this month, Rabbi Michael will share at First Baptist Church. Engaging means, ultimately, learning how to tell your own story.  Stay informed and figure out how you can be part of the solution of eliminating or decreasing religious violence, persecution, and marginalization.  How can you advocate for peace, fight against religious abuse, or support global organizations committed to alleviating human rights abuses around the world?